System Shock 2’s effect on gaming, survival horror and on the FPS genre is well known and acknowledged. Everything from its spiritual successor Bioshock to Dead Space to Soma to Deus Ex to another spiritual successor Prey 2017, all owe something to this landmark title. It was the first game that placed the FPS genre into a survival horror game as well as the first that would incorporate role playing elements into the FPS genre. This would result in birth of the original Deus Ex one year after System Shock 2 (in 2000). System Shock 2 has a great influence over gaming but it also has aged like a fine wine, a fine cyberpunk horror wine.
In the far flung sci-fi future of 2114, 48 years after the events of the first game. System Shock 2 has you as a cyber-enhanced solider waking up, amnesiaied and seemingly alone on the Von Braun. With only the voice of Dr. Janice Polito as your guide you find that the ship has been overrun by an Alien hive mind called The Many which has taken over the crew. From there however the more he undercovers the more he learns about a sinister AI that has taken over the ship and has been using him like a puppet, threatening life and the future of humanity. Amnesia as a plot point in horror media is a trope as old as time but here it works quite well as it helps us identify with the solider more as he is discovering things at the same rate as we are, it too builds atmosphere of paranoia and fear because we have no idea what is going on or what happened. The atmosphere is one of the best aspects to System Shock 2; it creates a thick layer of terror that never lets up for the entirety of its run time. The game presents twists and turns that are built up and paid off extremely well, such as the reveal of SHODAN herself. SHODAN is an amazing villain, one of the best in gaming. She is cunning, she is manipulative, she is dangerously intelligent but most importantly she is believable in all of the above. The voice acting as per usual of a game from the late 1990s/early 2000s is mixed to great but Terri Brosius as SHODAN is the best acted out of all of them. She sells SHODAN’s deadly nature to a tee. The use of audio logs, while done before and not always the most well voice acted were very clever in telling the story, building the world and detailing the events before the game began. It makes the world feel alive as well as offering some hope that you might meet someone who would not kill you on sight.
The gameplay is a mixture of FPS and RPG mechanics as stated previously, two modes with one being Shoot mode where you can explore interact and attack with whatever you have equipped at the time. Use mode is your interface which acts as inventory, researching items viewing your logs and emails, repairing your items and managing your currencies among much more. It is a little unintuitive as for whatever reason you have to switch modes on the fly (because I am sure most of us forget our shortcut keys; while trying to not die to kamikaze service robots ). It can be awkward and stressful. In a lesser game this would be a problem and to some it can be an annoying problem to some. But to my mind it works well in contributing to the horror trappings the game wants to go for, by adding a sense of desperation to getting caught off your guard. Trying not to panic as you swap ammunition then being able to kill the charging hunk of flesh is (to my mind) a stressful but rewarding bit of game design.
The levels themselves are very well designed, linear enough to where exploring them does not feel boring but open ended enough to where it installs a sense of being lost in a place that has an underlying hostility, you don’t feel safe on the Von Braun no matter how many times you backtrack as there is always something there that you might run into. A new foe could kill you with one wrong step or an area that you did not find the first time you went through. You have to explore every deck of the Von Braun because you need every advantage over the deep space horrors. The need to explore is further emphasized by the fact there are no quest markers, you have to memorise the names of places and search the level for them which not only add to the identifiability between player and player character but reinforces that you are a scavenger, not a bad ass. You are fighting for your life.
The gunplay might be considered basic by today’s standards but it is punchy and rewarding. You have two currencies in the game that being your Nanites which you use to buy things, hack stations and heal on sick beds. These are plentiful if you save and spend wisely. Then you have Cybernetic Modules which you use to spend on upgrades for your character. These are only given in large amounts after completing objectives (as to be expected) but can be found in small amounts hidden throughout each level. While this is naturally designed to be rewarding the trouble (the only major flaw in System Shock 2 in fact) is that the game whimsically demands you to throw some points into an arbitrary selection of skills. Because the game never tells what skills you need you could spend them too many or too little in certain skills. This can (and often does) end with you running into a brick wall where you can’t process, at all. Some have claimed that this creates a unique kind of tension as the knowledge of this brink wall can make anyone nervous. But this makes any attempt without a guide or walkthrough an extremely risky venture as you could be anywhere between a third of the way through the game or at the very end and suddenly unable to process. My first playthrough ended only a third way through because I simply did not have the skills that I did not know I needed. I had to have guides and walkthroughs to insure I knew what to level. This isn’t really good design because the player can get screwed over by no knowable fault of their own.
Art style and graphics:
It’s a game from the late 1990s: don’t expect God of War or Witcher. However the simple designs and paper craft style models, for whatever reason. Work to the game’s advantage. SHODAN herself not only sounds terrifying but she looks like a cyberpunk nightmare with wires and cables merging into a human shape. The Cyborg Midwifes, when you look closely have really disturbing details when close up, just detailed enough to put ideas in one’s head but allows for the mind to fill in the rest. The Von Braun itself is highly memorable; it does not fall into the trap that many other sci-fi games and movies fall into by making the ships seem like miserable places to live. The SS Ishimura from the first Dead Space was a prime example of this, all metal and no colour to the point where you wonder if all interior decorators died in some strange brutal massacre somewhere. The Von Braun not only looks like a lived in and once welcoming place but has come colour and carpeting. It seems like a place where people lived and interacted before the blood got everywhere. The sound design needs to mention as it is some of the best if not the best out there. Everything from the screams of the Cyborg Midwives to the peeps of a camera spotting you just send chills down my spine. I doubt I will be forgetting what a malfunctioning suicide service robot sounds like any time soon. I would suggest turning off the techno music as it is (in my experience) very distracting and hurts the atmosphere. To my mind just listening to the moans of The Many and the inane mutterings of the Cyborg Midwives is more than enough atmosphere. The game can do without techno blaring whenever one of them spot you.
It runs fine, perfectly in fact. Nothing to complain about here. It is a superb port that runs like a dream.
Like any great alcoholic beverage System Shock 2 is an experience that one simply cannot forget or brush off. It is a landmark title for a good reason and deserves to be played by anyone who has a taste for horror and even those who want to just play a great game. SHODAN and The Many will haunt my dreams for a long, long time. Truly one of the best games ever made.
Like a strange entity that consumes far too much media I go by many names, some call me Stuart, others call me FrozenDoom and the rest call me (among others)….Good Hunter. I am a part time game reviewer and writer. I will be uploading my reviews and other content here. I also have another blog that will work along with Rockslide Media in terms of uploads. Both sites will get the same content, Imaginative Ramblings will be the place where you can support me if you desire. Please enjoy what we have to offer and take care.